Amy Keating '86

Amy Keating ’86 thought she was doing consumers a favor by compiling nutrition labels for a major food company.

In fact, she was keeping her employer in check with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), right about the time she went to work at Kraft General Foods and the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act went into effect.

It took eight years in the prepared-foods industry to see the light. Now, Keating is a Program Leader and Nutritionist at Consumer Reports (CR), the independent, nonprofit organization with a mission to work “side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world.”

After Ithaca, Keating earned her registered dietitian credentials at Emory University. She served three years as clinical nutritionist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, until a better- paying job came along. There was plenty of work at Kraft for a nutritionist who was good with numbers.

Twelve grams of fat per serving of macaroni and cheese, with 470 mg of sodium and zero dietary fiber. You can thank Amy Keating for that – the numbers, not the recipe – and in 1997, her diligence won a promotion to senior research scientist. Jell-O desserts were one of her specialties, but within a year, Keating was dissatisfied.
 
“I wanted my background in nutritional science to help people make better choices,” she says now about her move to CR in 1998. “Mass marketing of packaged foods was not helping consumers make the best decisions for their health and well-being.”

Now, with nearly 20 years of service at CR, Keating enjoys her role in what the organization does best: evidence- based product testing and ratings, rigorous research, public education, and “steadfast policy action on behalf of consumers’ interests.”

Like consumers’ trending interest in Greek yogurt, for instance. Ever the skeptical label- readers, Keating and a CR colleague (Linda Greene, Cornell Food Science MS ’85) found something amiss with the nutrition panel on Whole Foods Fat Free Plain Greek Yogurt, which claimed just two grams of sugar per eight-ounce cup. “That seemed really low,” Keating told a television news show. “Other yogurts we looked at had 5 to 10 grams of sugar per cup.” When CR tested six samples of the Whole Foods product, they found an average of 11 grams of sugar, more than five times what the label claimed.

Her venerable publication, which began in 1936, faces something of marketing- image challenge itself, the program leader acknowledges: “Young people say, ‘Oh, yeah, my parents had Consumer Reports, and they kept back issues in a box in the basement.’”

So CR staffers try to think out of the basement – about what younger readers are buying these days – and to a recent examination of supermarket-prepared meals, now a $29-billion-a-year industry. Adobo chicken and kale, cranberry and pecan salad sounds delectable, but is it really fresh? Only about half the prepared meals in three different chains in the Northeast were actually made on premises, Keating’s secret shoppers revealed. Often the meals were cooked and frozen many zip codes away, then reheated in supermarket kitchens.

And in FDA rules set to take effect in 2017, CR sleuths found a regulatory loophole the adobo chicken could amble through: Nutrition information must be available for items “eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location,” the FDA insists.

“It’s confusing,” Keating says. “For dishes that are sold at the hot bar or salad bar, the store will have to provide nutrition
information. But if you buy the same dish by the pound from the deli counter, it won’t.”

Human Ecology Magazine - Spring 2017

Alumni Affairs and Development
Division of Nutritional Sciences